WHEN MICHIGAN STATE played Notre Dame recently, it should have been a great moment in major-college football. But instead, the event showed the shortcomings of the sport in hiring African-Americans as head coaches.
Michigan State had Bobby Williams and Notre Dame had Tyrone Willingham, who compose 50 percent of black head coaches in NCAA Division I-A. The other two are San Jose State's Fitz Hill and New Mexico State's Tony Samuel.
Out of 117 schools, only four black head coaches. Even more embarrassing is that the number is down from the high of eight in the late 1990s. There hasn't been much progress except in the increased number of African-American assistant coaches. Other than that, there has been a lot of fumbling, stumbling, and a lot of lost ground.
Ohio State athletic director Andy Geiger, the former University of Maryland AD, tried to lure Willingham to Ohio State. It was Geiger who brought Dennis Green, a black, to Stanford before Green became coach of the NFL's Minnesota Vikings.
Geiger has been one of the leaders in hiring minorities.
"Major-college football has changed very little," said Geiger, alluding to the past decade. "There isn't a lot of risk taking in hiring coaches. People are reluctant to change. They are afraid of the unknown."
Ravens running backs coach Matt Simon has a term for athletic directors who use this approach. He says they need to start thinking "outside the box." Simon, who is black, was the head coach at North Texas from 1994 through 1997. He was the Southland Conference and Black Coaches Association Coach of the Year in 1994.
"It's human nature to keep doing the same thing over and over again," said Simon. "But so often we don't learn from history and it repeats itself. What I tend to see is that the athletic director goes in and hires the same stiff pair of pants he just fired. They want to make the alumni and the administration happy, so they hire the guy out of the cookie cutter again.
"There are a lot of Tyrone Willinghams out there," said Simon. "They can open up windows and doors that haven't been open. They bring with them the same type of organizational skills, know-how and background. But they will also bring in a new flavor in regards to outlook and a new way to relate to players, to get the most out of him.
"These coaches will have the ability to get into homes that the school couldn't get into before. But instead, they go to Florida State and find another one. Or Virginia Tech to get another cookie cutter."
But even some of the big-name schools haven't hired such top black assistants as Nebraska quarterbacks coach Turner Gill and receivers coach Ron Brown, Tennessee running backs coach Woody McCorvey and South Carolina defensive coordinator Charlie Strong.
Maybe they're from a different cutter.
There are strong candidates in black-college football such as Hampton head coach Joe Taylor and Florida A&M;'s Billy Joe. Grambling's Doug Williams should be near the top of every school's list. He has coached on the high school, college and pro level. He was a successful quarterback in the NFL, and has instant name recognition.
What else is there for him to do?
But he and others may never get called. They don't have the pedigree, and apparently, the connections.
But it would be interesting to see how some of the best major-college coaches would do in the Mid-Eastern and Southwestern athletic conferences, which are predominantly black.
"You don't have the best practice facilities or the best stadiums," said James Harris, the Ravens' pro personnel director and Grambling's quarterback in the late 1960s.
"There is a limit on the travel and recruiting budgets. The game tape isn't high quality. Those coaches don't have the best in modern technology. Coaching at a black school is one of the toughest jobs in football, and to be successful is quite an accomplishment."
There have been 348 coaching vacancies at major colleges since 1982, and African-Americans have filled only 17 of them, 13 since 1999. According to the NCAA Minority Opportunities and Interest Committee, 51 percent of college athletes are black and 49 percent are white.
The addition of black head coaches at major colleges would provide a different dynamic, according to Simon.
"African-American coaches don't want the job because the universities feel they owe black America something," said Simon. "I want you to give me the job because I'm trying to sell you something new. Colleges need to be more diverse.
"A guy like Doug Williams can break down some barriers, give a new angle to recruiting. He'll be able to relate to student athletes more extensively. The designs, schematics, the organizational things might be a little different, but there are a lot of ways to skin a cat, and that has been proven over the years."
African-Americans have been given opportunities, but at schools like Wake Forest and Temple. There are some who will point to an increase in African-American assistants during the past decade, and insist there is no problem.
But skin color and contributions from alumni and boosters are factors. Athletic directors want to find a mutual comfort zone. For years, Maryland wouldn't hire Ralph Friedgen because of his weight.
But once the alumni became united and made a push, Maryland had very little choice.
"It's like hiring a female athletic director; it's a perceived risk," said Maryland athletic director Debbie Yow. "Football leadership is not a race or gender issue, but an issue of experience, education and the propensity to do the job.
"Ty is the breakthrough story of the 2002 season, much like Ralph was in 2001. Eventually, there will be a cumulative, positive effect that will open doors for African-American men if Ty keeps winning. Everyone wants to have a comfort zone, but winning matters more than comfort. That's human nature."
Brown and Simon aren't ready to concede change will happen.
"Every person of color has had to deal with adverse conditions and issues that keep coming back again," said Brown. "Ty has been a success in the Pac-10 and now at Notre Dame, but there are still a lot of close-minded people out there."
Simon said: "Tyrone Willingham had to take that job at Notre Dame. He had to take it for all us. But until institutions change the process, things won't change. They've got to get outside of the box."